Gardening with Chickens: Getting Started
[Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of three blog posts featuring excerpts from Lisa Steele’s book, Gardening with Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and Your Hens. The second article is Pest Control, and the last article is Making Compost]
Chickens and gardening go hand in hand. A garden can provide your chickens with lots of nutritious, inexpensive treats to supplement their regular feed, while their activities — scratching for bugs, loosening the dirt, eating weeds, and providing free fertilizer — can help the garden thrive.
Raising chickens and planting gardens both contribute to a more healthy, sustainable way of life. But the real beauty is when they’re combined. The circle is complete! Nothing goes to waste: not garden trimmings, not vegetable peels, not a single eggshell, not even any chicken poop (AKA bountiful, free, nutrient-rich fertilizer.) It all has a purpose.
While these days I am better known for raising chickens, some of my fondest memories of growing up on a farm are actually rooted in the garden. As I child I convinced my mom to let me plant my own small plot to grow carrots for my pet rabbit. I remember being too impatient to wait for the carrots to grow to maturity and sneaking in to harvest a miniature carrot or two for my bunny.
These days, my garden has grown considerably, although I’m not sure I am any more patient than I was back then! But I generally manage to be patient enough to at least allow the vegetables to grow fully before yanking them out of the ground. Now that I’ve added chickens to the equation, convincing them to leave the growing vegetables alone is the real challenge.
You see, chickens are not very discriminatory when it comes to what they are going to eat, where they scratch, or where they decide to take a dust bath. And they’re certainly not going to take orders! One of the questions I get most frequently is “How can I get my chickens to stop destroying my garden?”
Chickens and Gardens Can Coexist
The simple answer is to pen up the chickens or fence in the garden, but there’s a far better solution than just keeping them separate. With some proper planning and a thoughtful setup, it’s possible for chickens and gardens to live in peace . . . and to benefit each other as well.
There are some compelling reasons to position your gardens near your coop. If you plan on composting the chicken manure from the coop and using it to fertilize your garden, you’ll want your garden fairly close to the coop. And if you expect your chickens to help you in the garden, then a short walk from the coop to the garden will make everyone’s life easier. How do you keep a garden close to your coop and keep it from getting destroyed, though?
Fencing and Barriers
A chicken wire cloche protects plants from chickens. Installing fencing around your garden is the easiest solution if you plan on allowing your chickens to roam freely on your property. Easy fencing? Actually, yes, since you’re mostly just keeping your chickens out of the garden, as opposed to keeping predators out of your chicken run. Metal or wooden stakes pounded into the ground will do as fence posts, as well bamboo poles or sturdy branches. You just need something to wrap the fencing around.
As for fencing materials: plastic poultry netting, bird netting, and chicken wire are all lightweight, inexpensive materials that will do a fine job. Generally speaking, you are going to want to erect fencing that is at least 5 feet high.
Note: Chicken wire is only good for keeping chickens in (or out, depending on the purpose for which it’s being used). It should never be used for run fencing, on coop windows or air vents, or anywhere else that predator proofing is necessary. Most predators can rip through netting in no time.
Other Ways to Protect Plants
In addition to nibbling on plants, chickens love to scratch around the bases of plants, shrubs, and bushes looking for bugs, displacing any mulch or gravel and potentially damaging tender roots with their sharp toenails. An easy way to protect plants is to create a ring around the base of each plant with bricks, stones, pavers, or even short boards. I also like to cage plants using a piece of wire fencing.
Note: When selecting landscape materials, be careful not to choose any chemically treated mulch, plastic weed cloth that can be harmful if your chickens peck at and eat it, pressure-treated wood, or landscaping products that contain chemicals, herbicides, or other substances potentially dangerous to your chickens. Instead, go with untreated wood, wood chips, and other natural materials.
The key to setting up your chicken-friendly landscape is to experiment with various types and heights of fencing, edging, pavers, and cages to protect the things you really don’t want the chickens to have access to.
About Lisa Steele: Lisa is a lifelong gardener and chicken keeper. On her popular Fresh Eggs Daily website and Facebook page she shares tips on keeping chickens, as well as gardening advice, DIY projects, and recipes.
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